The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
October 27, 2019
All Saints’ Church
Today’s Gospel message is about the relationship between righteousness and contempt. Jesus tells the story about two men. One does everything that is correct. He’s the upstanding citizen, the kind of person who keeps the world running, the guy who follows all the rules and sets an example. And he is VERY happy with himself. The other man is none of these things. He has sold himself out, betraying his own people by taking a job that is anathema to his community. He is very UNHAPPY with himself, and he begs God for forgiveness.
This is a clear yet odd story, and it tells one of the important lessons the Christian faith has to teach: that unbridled righteousness leads to the sin of contempt.
Jesus tells this story because he knows it will need to be told and retold to generations upon generations for thousands of years to come, and it’s one we need to hear today. We want to do the right thing. We want to strive after righteousness. We want to do what is good and true and faithful in the sight of God. And yet, the more righteous you become, the greater is the temptation to one of the unintended consequences of righteousness, the great sin of the do-gooder, the abomination named in this story: contempt.
Why does the righteous man leave the temple unjustified while the tax collector goes home with God’s blessing? Because the righteous man has succumbed to contempt. He has convinced himself that he is good and that others are bad. He has confused following the rules with his own goodness. And then he has allowed himself to look down his nose at those who are in even greater need of God’s love and grace. He has made his pride his faith.
Righteousness breeds contempt for others. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, especially for those of us who just want to do the right thing. You know, I spend a lot of time in church and doing churchy things, and I’ve been living this way for most of my life. And let me say that from my experience, I have rarely met someone who comes to church who isn’t interested in doing the right thing. For the most part, we are a self-selecting group of people. We are drawn to God and God’s grace. We want a better world, and we want to be part of the solution to the world’s problems. We are willing to sacrifice our own immediate best interest in order to seek first Kingdom of God and its righteousness. These are all positive motivations, and we express them in so many ways. They drive us here on Sunday mornings even when it’s raining. They motivate us to serve in ministries, to tell others about the good news, and even to take on menial and thankless tasks that only God can see. Without these intentions, the Church would be nothing more than a vanity project or just another consumer experience.
But there’s a fine line between dedicating yourself to good and looking down on others who aren’t doing what you’re doing. That’s when righteousness becomes contempt. And it’s an easy and slippery slope from the one to the other.
Christianity is a funny thing. It’s a religion that proclaims God’s triumph over the sin and evil—but only by sacrificing himself on a cross. It’s a faith that believes the church is the very Body of Christ—yet it tells the story of how religious leaders were the ones who handed Jesus over to death. And then we hear this parable today—those of us who are dedicated to striving for righteousness are told that the fruit of this very righteousness can be our spiritual undoing.
Embedded within our faith is the paradoxical knowledge that the more this faith flourishes, the stronger the temptations for it to stray and the graver the consequences for when it does. Think about that for a second. The deeper you go into this mystical journey with Christ and the more you see of his grace and mercy, the more you will be tempted to betray him and your fellow human beings. No wonder so few of us choose this path! It’s not the kind of thing that gets easier as you practice it. Actually, it gets harder. The more righteous you become, the more likely you will feel contempt.
But there’s a simple solution to this problem. Jesus tells us exactly what to do when we start to feel contemptuous. He says, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” If you feel yourself becoming contemptuous, the best medicine is a little dash of humility. That was the righteous man’s problem. He kept puffing himself up. But no one is as perfect as he thought he was. He may have looked at the tax collector with contempt, but what about his own issues? That’s great he fasts twice a week—but what about people who don’t have enough money to feed themselves or their families? That’s fine he gives 10 percent of his income. But where does he think that other 90 percent comes from? As one member of our congregation reminds us every year, it’s good she’s not God because she wouldn’t let us get away with just 10 percent.
Without humility, we begin to think that every good thing we have in our lives comes from us and not from God. Without humility, we start to blame others for their own problems and lose our empathy for their struggles. Without humility, we are tempted to put ourselves in the place of God, and there is no greater sin than that.
Self-righteousness breeds contempt. And the cure for contempt is humility. That’s what Jesus says.
Unfortunately, this has been a lesson that the Church has often forgotten. Among all the crazy news items from the past week, you may have noticed a study that came out from the Pew Research Center. They’re the definitive record keeper about religion and demographics in the United States. According to their study, only 65 percent of Americans identify as Christian. Just ten years ago, that number was 77 percent. That means that in just one decade, 12 percent of the entire population of this country of over 300 million people has left Christianity.
And do you know what the largest growing religious group is in America? It’s the so-called “nones.” These are people who aren’t necessarily atheists or agnostics. They just have no religious identity at all. This group has grown from 12 percent to 17 percent of the population since 2009. It is growing across all demographics—college educated and non-college educated, urban and rural, black, white, and Hispanic, Republicans and Democrats. The energy and momentum in the faith life of this country in this time is with a category called “none.”
And to be honest, in many ways, I can’t blame these millions of people. Because I think I know why they’ve left this faith. They are people who have come to the temple in search of meaning and truth, in search of grace and hope. But instead they have heard the voice of the righteous man, the song of self-satisfaction and contempt. And why would anyone want to be part of a church like that? Especially a church that has this gospel story in its holiest scriptures?
It’s easy to point out self-righteousness in others. We can talk about the churches that have allowed abuse of children and then ignored the pleas of the victims. We can talk about the churches that package the Gospel up in a slick package of friendliness but then exclude some of God’s most vulnerable people. We can talk about pastors who make millions of dollars while conveniently skipping over the fact that our Lord lived a life of poverty. All these things have firmly put themselves in the imagination of the public, which now sees them as what American Christianity is all about.
But to point out all this hypocrisy without a look at ourselves would be to fall into the very trap of contempt that Jesus describes today. The only way to cure contempt is with humility. No church will ever be perfect, because every church is made up of imperfect people. The only way for an imperfect body of people to proclaim the salvation of God is with humility. Humility must be at the core of everything we do. We must welcome guests and strangers with a humble heart. We must worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness acknowledging that beauty comes from God alone. We must offer our gifts at the altar freely and without self-satisfaction. When we succeed, we must stand in awe at the great things God does in our midst. When we fail, we must thank God for the grace to give us another chance. And like the tax collector, we must continually ask for God’s mercy—for the sins we commit and the sins committed on our behalf.
This is what a Christian community looks like: not righteous and contemptuous, but humble and open. All that we have comes from God, and it is of God’s own that we offer ourselves back. The closer we get to God, the greater the temptation is to fall prey to pride. So arm yourselves with humility, the softener of hearts and fuel of true faith. Humble yourselves, and you will find exultation in God. Amen.
The Rev. Spencer D. Cantrell
Oct 20th, 2019
All Saints' Church
Luke 18: 1-8
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
October 13, 2019
18th Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Spencer D. Cantrell
Oct 6th, 2019
All Saints' Church
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
September 29, 2019
All Saints’ Church
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Well, it’s a good thing nothing big happened in the news this week.
Friends, if you’re here for some spiritual rest and focus while the outside world just keeps swirling ever more quickly, then you’re in the right place. We are here to pray together, to listen to God’s holy word, to participate in the holy Sacraments, and to be Christ’s body. It’s kind of the opposite of the 24-hour news cycle, of vitriol and pettiness and lies and deceit, of all that’s bad out there. I think we all have the sense that we’re in for a long 14 months in our public life. So the time to ground yourself in things eternal, things that truly give life, is now. That’s what I’m planning to do—and for what it’s worth, I advise you all to do the same. For the sake of your souls, which can be so easily bruised by the kind of tumult that is surrounding us.
So let’s start now. In spite of what I said, I actually want to point us back in the direction of the news this week—not the news in Washington, but to other, longer-lasting things. On September 20, young people around the country and the world demonstrated in a climate strike. The action was meant to raise awareness of the future facing young people as the planet’s climate changes. It was timed to coincide with the climate forum before the opening of the UN General Assembly right here in New York. Members of our parish community participated, and there was a small but faithful group of Brooklyn Episcopalians present as well at the New York march.
Many of us saw the speech of teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. The video of her speaking to the delegates went viral. As you might know, Greta sailed from her home in Sweden to New York to be present. In her impassioned speech to the delegates, she said, “people are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money, and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
These prophetic words bring us to today’s readings from Scripture, readings that deal with money. Last week we heard Jesus’ parable of the dishonest steward, who proves to us that money is nothing more than a game we play with one another. This week we hear even clearer words. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Let’s just pause there for a moment. The Bible says the love of money is the root of all evil. If you didn’t know that before, now you do. Think back to all the crazy things that have happened in the world this week. Think of the things you consider evil—then dig deep and ask yourself what the root of that evil may have been. Chances are, after you sift through the spin and cut beneath what’s superficial, you will find—the love of money. For the life of me, I don’t know why this isn’t one of the main teaching of every Christian church, why every pastor, priest, and minster doesn’t remind their flock on a regular basis of this truth. It explains so much and offers such clear moral guidance. The more we love money, the greater home we give to evil. It’s that simple.
But back to Greta. She was giving a speech about climate change. But what is the root of this evil? Why are world leaders so unable to do anything about this urgent crisis? Why are corporations—and the system of consumption in which we all participate--totally resistant to change? Paul would say, it’s the love of money. And as it turns out, that’s what Greta Thunberg says, too. “People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money, fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
These bold words delivered by a brave young woman captivated the world not just because they prophesied the grim future of the planet. This speech captured our attention because it was a speech about money. And we rarely, hardly ever hear honest talk about money and how the love of money is the root of all evil.
Last week’s reading challenged us to examine the relationship between love and debt. This week, I believe the Spirit calls us to consider how our love of money inhibits our love of the planet, God’s creation.
When I was away on sabbatical this summer, I had the chance to think and pray about big questions, the ones that get lost in the buzz of daily activity. And one of the main themes I kept returning to was this: that in a time of climate crisis, one of the Church’s main missions should be to reconnect our souls with creation, to remind us that we are a part of the Earth, not separate from it.
This may sound like a new idea, but it’s really an old one. At the beginning of the Bible, God creates the earth first, then human beings. The place God gives us over the creation is not that of master, but steward, caretaker. This story is followed quickly by the solemn words from Genesis said on Ash Wednesday: remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Likewise, there is an ancient prayer the priest used to recite before celebrating Eucharist. Lifting up the elements, he would acknowledge the bread as “fruit of the earth and work of human hands;” likewise the wine was “fruit of the vine and work of human hands.” So in this most intimate way that we know Jesus, in the consecrated bread and wine, we experience him as the fruit of the earth. There is no Jesus without the earth.
We are dust. We are the fruit of the earth. We are formed of clay by the hand of the Almighty, given breath and life by God’s grace. We are a part of this planet, which God has created. So what happens to it, happens to us. There is no human life without the earth. It is our ground and our reality. We may be its greatest product, but that only ties us ever more intimately to it.
This thought can be comforting—but it can also be scary. Sometimes when we consider the spiritual truth of our connection to the planet, it can make it seem like we are not in control of our own destiny (which, in fact, is true.) I think this is why so much of our thinking and patterns of behavior are geared toward making us feel that somehow we’re NOT part of the earth, that we’re somehow separate. We capture nature and domesticate it. We abuse the planet’s resources and consume them to show our dominance over them. We advance our technology in part to try to outstrip the technology of nature, which we actually still barely understand.
And then there’s money. Money is not of the earth. Money is an idea. It is a concept. It is an agreement between people. And it has nothing at all to do with the earth. How much does the planet cost? What is the value of a human life? Does a flower charge you for the privilege of seeing its blossom? Or a rainstorm care about the value of the damage it causes? Of course not. And yet we persist in looking at the planet as if it were a commodity to be bought and sold. We think of climate change in terms of the cost of adaptation. But the earth doesn’t understand any of this—and yet, we are part of the earth. So the artificial separation we place between ourselves and it is to our own detriment. Money is the main vehicle by which we think of ourselves as separate from the planet, and the more we love money, the more evil we will inflict on ourselves.
We are a part of this planet and it is a part of us. Through it, we are materially connected to one another, a sacramental bond that is the expression of the universal spiritual bond that exists between all God’s creatures. The reality of climate change is laying this fact bare. The carbon we pump into the atmosphere in New York affects people living around the world. It’s as if the story from today’s Gospel reading were written not for a bygone time, but for today. The rich man ignores Lazarus when he would beg at his gate, but when they both die, he begs Lazarus from Hades for a sip of cool water. Today, we in the rich world are ignoring the witness of the poor in our world who are already suffering from desertification, rising sea levels, and changing animal migration patterns. Yet is it is very possible that within a few years, we will be begging them for what resources they do have. What happens when that day comes is yet to be seen.
Like you, I’m sure, I feel overwhelmed by the scope of the challenge. We all know that action requires more than giving up plastic straws and composting your organics. It is systemic and it is global. But so are a lot of other problems. The task of the Christian in the face of such tremendous obstacles is the same as it has been for millennia: be the light of Christ in the world. Do not abandon hope. Offer yourself as a living sacrifice for what belongs to God, just as Jesus did. In our time, with these set of problems, part of this witness must be to remind the world that we are a part of God’s creation, not separate from it. We must not allow the love of money to obscure what is true and right. We must exorcise this undue love where we see it and call for justice. We must heed the calls of the Lazaruses of the world and not let them go unheard. And we must live in the knowledge that our bodies—our lives—belong to this same planet that the rest of the world seems so intent on destroying.
I must believe that all these things matter. I must believe that my faith matters. If I did not, I would have to abandon all hope. But in Christ, we have the life that really is life—a life eternal as members of his very body. May this body grow and flourish, heal intemperate loves, inspire the broken-hearted, and return us to a right relationship with this Creation God has placed into our care. Amen.